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Italy Declares War on Austria-Hungary

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 183rd installment in the series.

May 23, 1915: Italy Declares War on Austria-Hungary

While soldiers endured hardships on every front of the Great War, the prize for worst physical conditions probably goes to the Italian front, where the basic miseries of trench warfare were translated to Alpine terrain, alternating seasonally between bare rock and snow and ice. In addition to the obvious threat posed by hypothermia, in this extreme environment artillery duels produced disproportionate casualties thanks to clouds of razor-sharp fragments of shattered stone.

The Waiting Game

Considering the huge losses already suffered by all the belligerent nations, in retrospect it seems insane for any neutral country to voluntarily embroil itself in the maelstrom of the First World War, as Italy did with its declaration of war against Austria-Hungary on May 23, 1915. However Italian leaders believed the Allies were winning the war, and reasoned that they could both speed the final decision and pick up territory along the way. Nor were they alone: in 1915 and 1916 Italy would be joined by Bulgaria and Romania, which waded in (on opposing sides) motivated by similar dreams of aggrandizement. All would pay for their ambitions with rivers of blood.

Before the war Italy was technically aligned with Austria-Hungary in the defensive Triple Alliance with Germany, but their relationship was complicated by the presence of ethnic Italian populations in the Dual Monarchy, including the provinces of Trentino and Trieste. Italian nationalists had long called for the “redemption” of these territories, meaning unification with the rest of Italy by dismemberment of the Habsburg realm.

As tensions mounted in July 1914, Italian Foreign Minister San Giuliano tried to use the crisis to extract territorial concessions from Vienna, warning that Rome couldn’t accept Austro-Hungarian aggression against Serbia unless it received compensation in the form of the Italian provinces. However Emperor Franz Josef refused to negotiate (after all, the whole point of the war was keeping the empire in one piece) and Italy remained neutral.

The majority of the Italian public supported the decision to remain neutral, but a vocal minority favored intervention on the side of the Allies, arguing that now was the time to wrest the Italian provinces from Austria-Hungary and liberate their ethnic kinsmen. Matters were further complicated by the deaths of chief of the general staff Alberto Pollio, who suffered a heart attack on the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and San Giuliano, who died of gout on October 16, 1914. In this confused situation Prime Minister Antonio Salandra (below, left), a foreign policy novice, cautiously embraced a policy of “sacro egoismo,” or “sacred selfishness,” which in effect meant playing the Allies and Central Powers off each other to create a bidding war for Italy’s allegiance.

Wikimedia Commons [1,2]

Behind the scenes both sides were wooing Italy with promises of post-war territorial gains, sincere or otherwise. In the first months of 1915 Austria-Hungary, bowing to German pressure, finally agreed to cede part of the Trentino – but the Allies, already happily slicing up their opponent, countered with offers of the Tyrol and Trieste, and also threw in the Dalmatian coast for good measure (conveniently ignoring the fact that most of the inhabitants here were Slavs, not to mention that they had already promised it to Serbia). Salandra and his cynical Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino (above, right) were also impressed by the Allied assault on the Dardanelles, which they believed was about to end the war – meaning their window of opportunity was closing.

Glorifying Violence

In early 1915 the Italian government also came under intense political pressure from extreme nationalist, populist, and rightwing groups, including many figures who would later play a key role in the rise of Fascism. Indeed, political violence was becoming commonplace, reflecting the brutal worldview of men like Benito Mussolini, a rabble-rousing journalist who renounced socialism because of its pacifist ideals and founded his own newspaper, Popolo d’Italia, to publicize his pro-intervention views (below, left, Mussolini, with cane, standing next to Filippo Corridoni, another prominent pro-war activist).

In 1915 Mussolini called for war in a series of articles glorifying violence and vilifying political opponents, whom he accused of being paid agents of Austria-Hungary (a nice bit of hypocrisy, as his newspaper was funded by the French government; in 1916, a French government official recalled that Mussolini had “rendered us great service in the spring of 1915.”). Amid mass demonstrations by pro-interventionists, on May 11 Mussolini encouraged attacks against anti-war members of parliament, writing, “for the health of Italy a few dozen deputies should be shot: I repeat shot in the back.” Three days later he predicted chaos if Italy stayed out of the war: “An epoch of individual and collective retaliations will begin. The traitors will pay for their crime in blood.”

Mussolini sounded positively reasonable next to Gabriele D’Annunzio (above, right), an ultra-nationalist author already famous for his sensuous, intoxicating poetry and serial womanizing. After leaving Italy for self-imposed exile in France to escape his debts in 1910, in the spring of 1915 D’Annunzio returned with help from the French government and gave a series of inflammatory speeches, which were republished in the leading rightwing newspaper, Corriere della Serra. In a speech on May 6, 1915, he amplified Mussolini’s calls for attacks against anti-war activists:

If it is a crime to incite the citizens to violence, then I boast of committing that crime. Today the treachery is blatant. We don’t only breathe in its horrid stench, we feel all its appalling weight. And the treachery is being committed in Rome, city of the soul, city of life.

In another speech on May 13, 1915 he returned to the theme, unapologetically inciting criminal violence (below, D’Annunzio addressed the crowd):

If it is considered a crime to incite the citizenry to violence, I glory in that crime, I take it upon myself alone…Every excess of force is allowable, if it avails to prevent the loss of our Fatherland. You have to prevent a handful of pimps and swindlers from sullying and losing Italy.

Secret Treaty, Public Disorder

Unbeknownst to most of D’Annunzio’s listeners, the Italian government had already committed itself to join the Allies with the signing of the Pact of London on April 26, 1915 – the day after the Allied landing at Gallipoli, but well before any news of the disaster started trickling out.

Believing the Allies were about to storm Constantinople, Salandra and Sonnino rushed to sign Italy up before it was too late. In the secret treaty the Allies confirmed their extravagant promises of territory and agreed to loan Italy £50 million on generous terms, along with assurances of war indemnities from the defeated Central Powers. After the war Britain and France came up short on the territory, embittering the Italian elite and setting the stage for the rise of Mussolini’s Fascists – but in the short term they got Italy to sign on the dotted line, opening another front against the Central Powers.

In a typically high-handed move, Salandra and Sonnino had committed Italy to war without consulting Parliament, knowing full well that most ordinary Italians still opposed the idea. However they had some political advantages working for them: for one thing, the Italian constitution technically granted sweeping powers to the king, Victor Emmanuel III, even if he generally chose not to exercise them. Meanwhile the different anti-war groups, including the Liberals led by former Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti, the socialists, and the Vatican, proved totally unable to set aside their differences in order to present a united front. Simple threats of violence finished the job: amid mounting public disorder anti-war members of Parliament, already labeled traitors by the pro-war demagogues, feared for their own physical safety and that of their families.

On May 20, 1915, with many anti-war members cowed into silence and Giolitti unwilling to challenge the king, Parliament voted 407 to 74 to grant the government authority to finance the war, clearing the way for a declaration of war. On May 22 the government ordered mobilization, and the following day Italian diplomats delivered the final ultimatum to Austria-Hungary – at this point a mere formality. At midnight on May 23 Italy was formally at war.

Thus the Italian government deliberately led the country into the inferno despite the fact that a majority of the public opposed it, as Mussolini himself frankly admitted years later, during the Second World War: “The people’s heart is never in any war. Was the people’s heart in the 1915-1918 war, by any chance? Not in the least. The people were dragged into that war by a minority.”

An Uninspiring Start

Considering how long they had to prepare for it – chief of the general staff Luigi Cadorna started drawing up plans to attack Austria-Hungary in December 1914 – the Italian military’s opening performance in the First World War was unimpressive, if not downright disgraceful. Apparently unable to appreciate the hard lessons learned by other belligerents in the first ten months of the war, Cadorna believed the same tactics of mass infantry assaults would carry the Italians all the way to Vienna in less than two months. This was soon revealed to be a ludicrous fantasy (below, Italian troops leaving Venice).

The initial Italian invasion of Austria was dubbed the “Primo Sbalzo” or “First Leap” but hardly lived up to the name. When fighting began four Italian armies containing around 400,000 men – out of a total mobilized strength of 1.2 million, on paper at least – faced just two Austrian divisions, numbering 25,000 men. But the Italians, believing the Austrians had four times that number, proceeded cautiously at first, giving Austrian chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf time to rush more defenders to the area from the Balkan front, quiet since the Serbian victory at Kolubara (the Serbs were busy preparing for a long anticipated attack from Bulgaria).


After the declaration of war the Austrians swiftly withdrew to heavily fortified defensive lines, previously prepared some miles from the border at the order of Conrad (who long viewed war with Italy as inevitable), and allowed the enemy to creep forward unopposed. The main advance was left to the Italian Third Army, under the command of General Luigi Zuccari until May 27, when he was abruptly relieved by Cadorna and replaced by Emanuele Filiberto, the Duke of Aosta – the first of literally hundreds of Italian commanders to be cashiered in this fashion by Cadorna, who shared French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre’s mania for firing unsatisfactory commanders. By the end of May Aosta had advanced to the River Isonzo, fated to be the scene of eleven bloody battles in coming years, but failed to capture the crucial bridges over the river, which were blown up by the retreating Austrians.

To the north the Second Army under Pietro Frugoni, hindered by a lack of artillery, occupied the basin around Caporetto (later the scene of a disastrous Italian defeat in October 1917) but failed to seize the strategic ridges beneath the Carnic Alps. Further west, the Italian First Army under Roberto Brusati launched an ill-advised attack on Austrian defenses along the strategic heights around the city of Trent (which gave its name to the region Trentino) but immediately ran out of steam. Meanwhile the Italian Fourth Army under Luigi Nava occupied the town of Cortina, but for some reason didn’t launch a concerted offensive until the first week of June.

By the time the Italians arrived at the real Austrian defensive lines, Conrad had managed to transfer around 80,000 more troops to the area, which would soon be organized in three defensive formations – a new Austrian Fifth Army guarding the Isonzo River front under a Croatian general, Svetozar Boroević von Bojna, who soon showed himself one of Austria-Hungary’s most talented commanders (above, Austrian troops climbing near the Isonzo); Army Group Rohr, named for its commander General Franz Rohr, who’d been the main organizer of Austrian defenses on the Italian front in April-May 1915; and Home Defense Group Tyrol, under Victor Dankl von Krasnik (below, Austrian troops dug in on the Tyrol).

By mid-June the Italian advance had come to a sudden and inglorious halt at a cost of 11,000 casualties – a relatively modest figure, by the standards of the Great War, but one that was about to spiral out of control. The real bloodshed would begin with the First Battle of the Isonzo from June 23-July 7, 1915.


Political Casualties

In the second half of May 1915 the Great War claimed some of its most prominent political casualties yet, as the Gallipoli debacle and a growing scandal over munitions shortages forced British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to form a new government and replace Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.

As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill had been one of the most prominent figures associated with the Allied campaign to capture the Turkish straits, first with a naval assault and then later with the amphibious landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula. In fact, behind closed doors Churchill had prevailed upon First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher, the operational commander of the Royal Navy, to go along with the original plan despite his misgivings. Now both men would pay the price.

Following a bitter dispute at a meeting of the War Council on May 14, 1914, on May 15, Fisher handed in his resignation, to be replaced by Sir Henry Jackson, previously the Third Sea Lord, responsible for naval supplies. Two days later, on May 17 Churchill offered his resignation as First Lord of the Admiralty, and on May 21 Asquith accepted, although Churchill remained in the cabinet as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a ceremonial position that however allowed him to listen in on debates. On May 25 Asquith appointed Arthur Balfour, a Conservative former prime minister, as First Lord of the Admiralty as part of a new coalition government.

Asquith was forced to form a new government by public anger over the munitions crisis or “Shell Scandal,” which rocked the British political scene beginning with the publication of a controversial article in The Times on May 14, following the British defeat at Aubers Ridge, which the newspaper attributed to the lack of artillery shells. This in turn raised the issue of the government’s alleged mismanagement of shell production from both public and private manufacturers; Lord Northcliffe, the newspaper titan who owned The Times, was distraught over the death of his nephew at Neuve Chapelle, and personally blamed Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener for the loss.

Although public opinion rallied around Kitchener for the most part, the enmity of Britain’s most powerful news publisher helped force Asquith to form a new cabinet that included David Lloyd George (above), the Welsh Radical politician and orator who’d previously served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and also criticized Kitchener as old and out of touch. Lloyd George joined the government in the newly created position of Minister of Munitions, with responsibility for speeding up shell production. From here he would rise to become the next Secretary of State for War, and eventually replace Asquith as Prime Minister.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Aidan Monaghan/AMC
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What AMC's The Terror Got Right (And Wrong) About the Franklin Expedition
Aidan Monaghan/AMC
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for The Terror. If you haven't finished the show, don't read further!

We know the outcome of Captain Crozier's battle with Tuunbaq in the AMC series The Terror, and that he chose (as some rumors have suggested) to live with the Inuit rather than return to London when he has the chance. Now, it's time for a post-mortem (sorry) of the show's historical highlights. While Dan Simmons, author of the book on which the show is based, created Lady Silence and her supernatural evil spirit—Tuunbaq definitely wasn't stalking the men of the Erebus and Terror back in 1847—much of the show is faithful to the actual events of the Franklin expedition, one of the most enduring mysteries in polar exploration. Here's a rundown of what The Terror got right, and where the show slipped up.

RIGHT: THE TERROR’S ARCTIC ATMOSPHERE

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Sir John Franklin and James Fitzjames
Capt. James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), left, and Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds) survey the ice.
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

Right off the bat, The Terror envelops viewers in an icy world that increasingly mirrors the crews’ isolation and desperation. In the first tragic scene, a sailor falls overboard into a sea of accurately rendered pancake ice. In another scene, Captain Francis Crozier sees a sun dog—a solar phenomenon caused by sunlight refracting through clouds of ice crystals, often witnessed by polar explorers. The officers' uniforms and caps are also recreated with authentic details. As the hopelessness of their predicament dawns on the officers and men, summer’s 24-hour daylight vanishes, replaced by the 24-hour darkness of winter. The imprisoned ships tilt with the pressure of the pack ice.

There were a few hiccups noticed by sharp-eyed viewers in the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group, however. Caulker's mate Cornelius Hickey has a fondness for cigarettes, but most sailors probably smoked pipes at the time, and definitely not inside the ship. (Good thing they had that fire hole bored into the ice!) And assistant surgeon Harry Goodsir’s technique with the Daguerrotype camera in the blind would have produced a terrible photo. His 20th-century stopwatch wouldn’t have helped.

WRONG: FRANKLIN’S BACK-UP PLAN

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Sir John Franklin and Capt. Francis Crozier
Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), right, tries to convince Sir John that they're going to need rescuing pretty soon.
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

In a flashback in Episode 3, Sir John Franklin’s good friend Sir John Ross asks the soon-to-depart commander if the Admiralty had any plans for his rescue. When Franklin says one won’t be needed—since the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are the best-provisioned ships ever sent to the Arctic—Ross warns him that he’s being naïve. In real life, this conversation was much different, and it didn’t take place at the Admiralty.

Franklin and Ross knew firsthand how a well-provisioned expedition can become a fight for survival. (In Episode 6, Captain James Fitzjames hears the story of Ross’s disastrous Victory expedition from the Erebus's ice master Thomas Blanky, who was really there in 1829-1833.) Ross instead offered to rescue Franklin himself, and captained (at age 72!) a privately funded schooner in search of his lost friend in 1850. And because Ross and the Admiralty had had a major falling out decades before, Ross wouldn’t have been chatting with Franklin at the Admiralty's HQ in Episode 3, and he definitely wouldn’t have been there to hear Lady Jane Franklin’s plea for a search party in Episode 4.

Sir John Ross was the uncle of Sir James Clark Ross, whom we see in the first scene of Episode 1 and its replay, from a different point of view, at the end of Episode 10. In real life, Sir James was one of Crozier's closest friends.

WRONG (MAYBE): KILLER CANS

In a foreboding sign of things to come, Franklin removes a tiny blob of lead from his mouth while eating dinner with Fitzjames in the first episode. By Episode 4, the ships’ cooks are complaining that much of the canned meat is spoiled, and able seaman John Morfin shows up in Goodsir’s infirmary with a blackish line along his gums, an ominous sign of lead poisoning. To test that hypothesis, Goodsir feeds the monkey Jacko some of the canned meat, and then reveals his theory to the surgeon Stephen Stanley: The meat is contaminated with lead and the men have been eating it for more than two years.

The storyline is built upon a famous theory that is now in doubt. In the mid-1980s, forensic anthropologists found high levels of lead in Franklin crewmembers' remains. They suggested the source was poorly sealed food cans, and that lead poisoning led to the men’s deaths. But recent research has pointed to the Erebus’s and Terror’s unique water systems [PDF], which used lead pipes, as the primary source of contamination. And, a 2015 study compared lead content among seven crewmembers’ remains and found wide variation, suggesting some men may not have been debilitated.

RIGHT: SERIOUS SCURVY

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Goodsir and Young
Dr. Goodsir (Paul Ready) tries to save David Young (Alfie Kingsnorth).
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

David Young, the first fatality of The Terror, doesn’t show any signs of scurvy in Goodsir’s autopsy. But by the summer of 1848, the remaining crew camped on King William Island hasn’t eaten fresh meat in three years, and the Navy-issued lemon juice rations have either run out or lost potency. Signs of severe Vitamin C deficiency appear: Fitzjames’s old bullet wounds, which he boasted about at the officers' table in the first episode, begin to open up, and a rough-looking Lieutenant George Henry Hodgson loses a tooth as he chews the leather from his boot (a nod to Franklin’s awful 1819-1822 Arctic expedition) in Episode 9. The scenes match what most, though not all, historians and researchers now believe: that a grim combination of scurvy, starvation, exposure, and underlying illnesses spelled the end for Franklin’s men.

(VERY LIKELY) WRONG: FRANKLIN’S CAUSE OF DEATH

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Sir John Franklin and Tunnbaq
Tuunbaq takes a deadly swipe at Sir John.
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

The terrifying scene in Episode 3 in which Tuunbaq mauls Franklin to death and shoves him down the fire hole is most likely not the way it actually happened. Historically speaking, just after the men abandon ship in April 1848, Crozier and Fitzjames updated the note left in the cairn the previous spring. They reported that “Sir John Franklin died on 11th June 1847”—just 19 days after Lieutenant Graham Gore and mate Charles Des Voeux had left the same paper behind on May 24, 1847 and reported the crews “all well.” Unfortunately, it’s the only record ever found about the expedition’s progress, and no one knows for sure how Franklin died or what happened to his body. Inuit oral histories collected by Franklin scholar Louie Kamookak suggest Franklin was buried under a flat stone somewhere on King William Island, but to date, no trace has been found.

RIGHT: THAT CRAZY CARNIVAL

The wild masquerade party in the middle of the bleak and frozen Arctic, which Fitzjames orders as a morale-booster for the men in Episode 6, may seem like a total anachronism. In real life, it was a time-honored tradition. (We don't know for sure if the Erebus and Terror had a carnival because no logbooks from the expedition have been found, but it's likely that they did.) In 1819-1820, Sir Edward Parry led the first polar expedition to purposefully overwinter in the Arctic. He worried about how the men would fare psychologically during the months of darkness and teeth-cracking cold, so he brought along trunks of theatrical costumes and launched the Royal Arctic Theatre, a fortnightly diversion for the officers and men to perform silly plays and musicals. It kept the men busy writing shows, practicing their parts, and building sets, which Parry thought was the key to staying sane. The scheme was such a success that subsequent expeditions kept the tradition going. But unlike in The Terror, the frivolities didn’t end in fiery conflagrations and mass casualties. 

(POSSIBLY) WRONG: HICKEY’S MURDEROUS MUTINY

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Cornelius Hickey
Mr. Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) cooks up a mutiny.
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

In Episode 7, Hickey plans a mutiny and convinces enough of the desperate men to follow him, splitting the remaining officers and men into two groups and, in Episode 9, taking Crozier captive. Hickey also kidnaps Goodsir because, as the expedition’s sole remaining surgeon, he is the only one who knows how to wield a bone saw. We don’t know, though, if there was an actual mutiny among the Franklin survivors. The remains of some of Franklin's men were found in different locations, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate a breakdown of order. Smaller groups may have split off from the main group because they simply couldn’t march any farther or had decided to return to the ships. Despite the harsh conditions of service in the Royal Navy, mutinies were quite rare.

RIGHT: CANNIBALISM

Hickey’s followers, starving and desperate, dine on morsels of steward William Gibson in one of Episode 9’s most wrenching scenes with historical precedent. Hudson’s Bay Company trader John Rae discovered the truth about the Franklin expedition from interviews with Inuit in 1854, including testimony that the men resorted to cannibalism to survive. In his infamous letter to the Admiralty, he wrote, “from the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life.” Victorian England refused to believe it—but Inuit testimony and forensic research [PDF] supported Rae’s account, finally revealing the expedition’s fate.

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15 Actors Who Could've Played Han Solo
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Before Harrison Ford (watch his audition tape here) and Alden Ehrenreich were cast as Han Solo in the Star Wars film franchise, a number of young and famous Hollywood actors had a shot at playing everyone’s favorite “stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerfherder.” Here are 15 of them.

1. AL PACINO

After the massive success of the first two The Godfather films, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino was the toast of Hollywood. He was given the script to Star Wars and was offered the Solo job, but turned it down to star in Sydney Pollack’s Bobby Deerfield instead.

“It was at that time in my career when I was offered everything,” Pacino told MTV in 2014. “I was in The Godfather. They didn’t care if I was right or wrong for the role, if I could act or not act. ‘He’s in The Godfather. Offer him everything!’ So they offered me this movie. And I remember not understanding it when I read it. Another missed opportunity!”

2. MILES TELLER

 Actor Miles Teller attends the 2018 DIRECTV NOW Super Saturday Night Concert at NOMADIC LIVE! at The Armory on February 3, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Christopher Polk, Getty Images for DirecTV

Fresh off the success of Divergent and Whiplash in 2014, Miles Teller’s name appeared on the shortlist of young actors being considered to play the title role in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Believe it or not, he had never watched a single movie set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” before his audition with Lucasfilm.

“I had never even seen any of the original Star Wars movies until maybe a month or a couple weeks before my first audition because I was like, ‘I should check this out,'" Teller told MTV’s Josh Horowitz on the Happy Sad Confused podcast. “I just love Harrison Ford, I think that’s a great character. I love his brand, I mean so many guys would’ve played that part so wrong and he has humor at the right times.”

3. SYLVESTER STALLONE

Before he wrote and starred in Rocky, Sylvester Stallone met with George Lucas and auditioned for the part of Han Solo. He knew he wasn’t going to get the job based on the director’s ambivalent demeanor during his reading.

When asked about the audition in 2010, Stallone told Ain’t It Cool News in 2010, “It didn’t meet with much approval since when I stood in front of George Lucas he didn’t look at me once, obviously being very shy. Then I said ‘Well obviously I’m not the right type.’ but it all worked out for the best since I don’t look good in spandex holding a Ray gun.”

4. ANSEL ELGORT

 Ansel Elgort attends New York City Ballet 2018 Spring Gala at Lincoln Center on May 3, 2018 in New York City
Steven Ferdman, Getty Images

The Fault in Our Stars and Baby Driver star Ansel Elgort was one of the names on Lucasfilm’s shortlist of young actors for Solo. While he has the good looks to play the rugged space pirate, Elgort was relieved that Alden Ehrenreich was selected instead. 

“Yeah, I was pretty worried, honestly,” Elgort told The Huffington Post. “I was pretty worried that if I got it, I’d have to change my DJ name. So I’m relieved.” (Elgort is also a musician and singer with the DJ name of “Ansølo.” He publishes electronic dance music and remixes on Soundcloud under the pseudonym.)

5. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN

Before his breakout appearances in Annie Hall and The Deer Hunter, a struggling young actor named Christopher Walken auditioned for Han Solo in Star Wars. Although the role went to Ford in the end, Walken was reportedly Lucas’s second choice for the space smuggler.

6. DAVE FRANCO

After starring in hit comedies like Neighbors, Dave Franco auditioned for Lucasfilm. During pre-production in 2016, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller—who both also directed Franco in 21 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie—were set to direct Solo: A Star Wars Story. The pair left the project well into filming due to “creative differences.” Despite a strong audition, Franco ultimately didn’t get the role.

“I’m not good with impressions or anything like that,” Franco told MTV. “I think that’s the reason why it’s so hard to cast this role. Do they want someone to perfectly embody who Harrison Ford is, or do they want to go a completely different route? Do they want someone to look really similar to him? I don’t know, I think they’re struggling with that.”

7. KURT RUSSELL

During the mid-1970s, Kurt Russell auditioned for both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, but Lucas wasn’t sure he was right for either job. While the director was still making up his mind, Russell dropped out of the running altogether to be a series regular on a TV Western called The Quest instead.

“[I was] interviewing for the part of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo," Russell told USA Today. "On tape, it exists. I didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. Something about a Death Star and a Millennium Falcon. I was actually pretty [close], in the final running, but I needed to give an answer to ABC to do a western show. I asked George, ‘Do you think you’re gonna use me?’ He said, ‘I don’t know if I want to put you with him, or those two guys together.’ I got to go to work, so I did the western. Clearly, made the right choice.”

When later asked about his decision to work on The Quest, which lasted just one season, Russell told Vanity Fair: “I don’t have any regrets. As an actor you can’t dwell on those things or you’ll go crazy. Things happen for a reason and I’m happy how things turned out in my career. My life and career may have been different, maybe for better or for worse, if I did Star Wars, but you can’t focus on it. You move on.”

8. SCOTT EASTWOOD

 Scott Eastwood attends the 6th Annual Hilarity For Charity at The Hollywood Palladium on March 24, 2018 in Los Angeles, California
Alberto E. Rodriguez, Getty Images

In 2016, Lucasfilm auditioned more than 2500 actors roughly between the ages of 20 and 25 for Solo. The production company wanted an actor who was young enough to grow with the character through multiple movies. The list was whittled down to just eight names after screen tests, with actor Scott Eastwood—son of Clint—among those in the running. Although he was a favorite with Star Wars fans, Eastwood was 29 years old at the time and the oldest actor on the shortlist.

9. ROBERT ENGLUND

Before he was known as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Robert Englund auditioned for Han Solo. While he didn’t land the gig, Englund took the script home with him, because he thought his roommate would be perfect for the role of Luke Skywalker—and he was right! Englund’s roommate at the time was Mark Hamill, who played the iconic role for more than 40 years, most recently in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

“At that time, Mark Hamill was always on my couch,” Englund told ForceMaterial.com. “So there he was, halfway through a six-pack, watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I went in and I said to him, ‘Look at these sides, I think you’re right for this, man. This character is like a space prince, and it’s George Lucas!' ... I was just saying, ‘Wow, what if you got to be in a George Lucas movie, Mark? You’re the kind of actor he loves!’ So he got on the phone to his agent and the rest is history.”

10. LOGAN LERMAN

After gaining critical and commercial success in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Fury, Logan Lerman was reportedly on Lucasfilm’s shortlist of young actors to play Solo. While he didn’t end up landing the gig, Lerman said of the role to MTV, “I don’t think I’d be intimidated. It would just be fun.”

11. JACK REYNOR

 Jack Reynor arriving at the 'Detroit' European Premiere at The Curzon Mayfair on August 16, 2017 in London, England
Tristan Fewings, Getty Images

While audiences might know him as the lead character in the Irish drama What Richard Did or as the love interest in Transformers: Age of Extinction, Irish actor Jack Reynor was on the shortlist for Solo, and was ultimately happy he didn’t get the gig.

“That Han Solo movie is going to be really tough,” Reynor told The Irish Times. “I think the guy who is doing it is a really good actor, but, for myself, I was afraid of it. I kept thinking: if you f**k this up you’ll ruin people’s childhoods. If it doesn’t turn out great, you won’t be forgiven. That’s a lot of responsibility. And even if it goes great, you’ll do it, people will know you only from that and that defines your career. That would be very difficult. For me, working on original material is very important.”

12. BILL MURRAY

While still on Saturday Night Live, it was rumored that Bill Murray was up for Han Solo in A New Hope. In 2015, while at San Diego Comic-Con, Murray addressed the nearly 40-year old rumors: “I don’t know if I was up for it. I can’t tell you for sure. But I am working out in hopes of getting this new thing,” he joked. “I’m doing a lot of swimming and pilates."

13. TARON EGERTON

 Taron Egerton attends the EE British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) nominees party at Kensington Palace on February 17, 2018 in London, England
Jeff Spicer, Getty Images

Welsh actor Taron Egerton, who starred in Kingsman: The Secret Service and its sequel, was reportedly one of the three names (alongside Reynor and Ehrenreich) on the final shortlist for Solo: A Star Wars Story. Like Reynor, Egerton admitted he was very apprehensive of the role.

“Roles of that level are always going to be life-changing,” Egerton told The Guardian in 2016. “I wouldn’t run into it blind. It would definitely be a shutting-a-door-behind-me moment. That is something that I’d be wary of.”

14. GLYNN TURMAN

Coming off his breakout success in Cooley High in 1975, actor Glynn Turman auditioned for Lucas—but he didn’t even realize he had auditioned for the part of Han Solo until he read about it in Dale Pollock’s book, Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, in 1983.

“In those days it said ‘black actor,’ ‘white actor,’ ‘Hispanic actor’ for every role, but it didn’t say either for the Han Solo part,” Glynn Turman told Empire Magazine in 2017. “It didn’t specify ‘black actor.’ I was rather pleased because I was just being called in as a talent. I remember George was very professional.” Turman must have impressed Lucas, as he was apparently considered for the role of Lando Calrissian as well.

“Later, I was approached for the role, in that same franchise, that [was given to] Billy Dee Williams,” Turman told Yahoo! Entertainment. “Handsome, swashbuckling, dashing Billy Dee. I hate him! Not true. Dear friend and a talented man. Lando Calrissian! That wouldn’t have fit me anyway. But it fits a Billy Dee Williams.”

15. EMORY COHEN

 Actor Emory Cohen attends the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival after party for Vincent N Roxxy at Black Market on April 19, 2016 in New York City
Cindy Ord, Getty Images for 2016 Tribeca Film Festival

In 2016, New York City-born actor Emory Cohen, a.k.a. “the cute guy from Brooklyn in Brooklyn,” was among the contenders to play Han Solo. "I read for it once," he later told The Daily Beast, and joked that, “They don’t even want me!”

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